It makes sense, especially in pandemic times, that just when you’re feeling most confident about your team, you’re brought swiftly back to earth.
Tennessee’s 71-63 loss to Alabama dropped the Vols from sixth to eighth in KenPom, though the Vols now have the best defense in the nation in those ratings thanks to an equally rough day for Texas Tech. The Crimson Tide were battle tested and loved the three, and in the second half it loved them back.
The three biggest factors in Saturday’s loss were (hopefully) varying degrees of weirdness. Let’s take them in order from most to least weird, or how much we should be worried about them showing up again in the future.
Bama shooting 10-of-20 from three
After going 2-of-9 in the first half, Alabama was a ridiculous 8-of-11 from the arc in the second half, pushing the lead to double digits quickly then never allowing the Vols to get back within less than six. How often is a shooting display like that going to happen?
The good news: not very often.
Last year only Kentucky in Knoxville hit 50% from the arc against the Vols, and that was only 5-of-10. Two years ago, we saw how dangerous any team can be when they get this hot from three, as Colgate went 15-of-29 from the arc in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Vols also survived South Carolina hitting 14-of-23 in Knoxville, but still won by scoring 85 points of their own. The Gamecocks also hit 7-of-13 in Knoxville in 2017; no team hit that high a percentage in 2018.
In general, this kind of game tends to happen only once or twice a year, unless you’re just incredibly unlucky: see Cuonzo Martin’s last team, which was really good defensively but saw NC State and Texas A&M hit 50% or better from the arc in Knoxville, then Michigan hit 11-of-20 in the Sweet 16. Overall five teams hit 50%+ against the 2014 Vols from three, helping them finish 341st in luck in KenPom.
You can tip your hat to Alabama, and hope the Vols maybe close out better in the corner going forward. But overall, this part should be more of an anomaly.
Vols missing nine free throws
Tennessee still shoots 74.7% from the line, 59th nationally. So nothing to worry about here just yet. But you only have to go back to…the previous game to find Tennessee shooting something worse than they did against Alabama at the stripe: 17-of-26 (65.4%) against the Tide, 14-of-24 (58.3%) at Missouri.
John Fulkerson was 3-of-8 against Alabama, but is still 27-of-35 on the season. Victor Bailey is 17-of-19, Santiago Vescovi 10-of-10, Josiah James 15-of-16. The biggest concerns here so far: Keon Johnson is 14-of-24, E.J. Anosike is 12-of-18.
You’re not going to shoot 75%+ every night, but other than those two guys getting better, I’m not worried here just yet.
In the first half, Jaden Springer got hurt, Yves Pons sat with two fouls, and Santiago Vescovi picked up his second (and eventually a Rick Barnes technical) with four minutes to play. Tennessee led 26-23 at that point. UT’s offensive possessions in those last four minutes went:
- Keon Johnson missed front end of one-and-one
- Drew Pember turnover after two offensive rebounds
- Drew Pember missed layup
- John Fulkerson hits 1-of-2 free throws
- Victor Bailey made jumper
- Rick Barnes deadball technical
- Keon Johnson missed layup
The Vols went into the locker room trailing 31-29. More unusual lineups ensued when Barnes benched Fulkerson for the final eight minutes, sticking with Vescovi, Bailey, Johnson, James, and Pons. That group was down by nine at the under eight timeout, and lost by eight, never getting closer than six. They outscored Alabama only 9-8 in those final eight minutes, with two of those Bama points on late fouls: good defensively, but inefficient offensively.
Overall, Tennessee’s scoring remains incredibly balanced with seven players between 8-13 points per game. But if you take it per minute, Tennessee’s most efficient scoring options look like this:
- Jaden Springer 22.8 points per 40 minutes
- Victor Bailey 19.9
- John Fulkerson 16.6
- Keon Johnson 16.2
Without Springer and Fulkerson down the stretch, the Vols looked like they lacked an identity offensively in crunch time. When things were tight against Cincinnati, it was Fulkerson drawing fouls (and hitting free throws) that pushed the Vols back in front, followed by a big shot from Pons. Down the stretch, there was a lot of one-on-one stuff from Bailey and Johnson, but it wasn’t enough.
In good news/bad news, Arkansas will provide a similar challenge on Wednesday: they love to go fast and shoot threes, and they join Missouri and Alabama as the kind of team Tennessee might see in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. We’ll see if Jaden Springer can go and how much Fulkerson plays; I bet Arkansas shoots less than 50% from the arc and the Vols miss fewer than nine free throws. But the lineup stuff will be most intriguing, even if the Vols don’t need a bucket down the stretch.